When Gabriella Prettelt first began bartending about eight years ago, the only patrons who ordered non-alcoholic beer were older adults.
“You wouldn’t catch anyone early 20s drinking it,” said Prettelt, whose bartending gig supplements her day job as a dietitian. “Now, I definitely see it way more in the younger crowd.”
The popularity of non-alcoholic beer has soared in recent years as more Americans – particularly millennials – have sought to reduce, or eliminate, their alcohol consumption. Non-alcoholic beer sales rose 39% in 2019 and another 38% in 2020, hitting $188 million, according to market researcher IRI.
And consumers are no longer limited to the likes of O’Doul’s.
A nascent craft scene is headed by The Athletic Brewing Co., a Connecticut-based company founded in 2018 with the intention of producing great tasting, non-alcoholic beer. The company offers four beers, including two IPAs, and holds 46% of the U.S. market for non-alcoholic craft beers, according to the Boston Globe.
But major brewing companies are sensing an opportunity, too: Boston Beer Co., makers of Sam Adams and Dogfish Head beers, released its first non-alcoholic offering, Just The Haze, in March. Anheuser-Busch not only tapped former NBA star Dwyane Wade to plug Budweiser Zero, but reportedly plans to have non-alcoholic and low-alcohol beers comprise 20% of its overall beer portfolio.
Many non-alcoholic beers have been marketed as an option for health-conscience people who enjoy the taste of beer, but don’t want the aftereffects of alcohol.
Nutritionists vouch for the products’ role in reducing alcohol consumption, but they stop well short of describing it as a healthy drink. Rather, they view it as an occasional pleasure and caution consumers against buying into the myriad claims about its nutritional benefits.
“I do think this is a good idea if you want to cut back, or as a stepping stone on your way to a sober lifestyle,” said Prettelt, a registered dietitian in the Department of Surgery at Cooper University Healthcare. “But nutritionally, it’s not like not drinking, because there are calories, carbs and all of those things involved.”
Most regular beers have anywhere from 145-175 calories, with some craft brews – particularly IPAs – topping 200 calories. Light beers contain 95-120 calories. The caloric content of non-alcoholic beers ranges from about 60-120. But they tend to pack nearly as many, and sometimes more, carbohydrates than regular beers.
The chart below provides a comparison of several regular, light and non-alcoholic beers. All figures are based on a 12-ounce serving:
Nutritionists advise people to keep their health goals in mind when they’re enjoying a night out. If they’re simply seeking to reduce their alcohol consumption, non-alcoholic beverages can play a role. But if they’re taking a more holistic health approach, they should be mindful of whatever they drink.
“What the non-alcoholic beer will do – it will prevent that alcohol feeling, that getting drunk feeling,” said Emily Rubin, director of clinical dietetics at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. “So it will be better for that situation, if you don’t want to get quote-unquote drunk. And you look socially like you have a drink.”
It also indirectly may help prevent people from consuming additional calories. Research suggests that alcohol blocks hormones tied to satiety, the sense of feeling full, and it may stimulate nerve cells in the brain that increase appetite, which helps explain why people get the munchies after a night of drinking.
Plus, alcohol impairs judgment, prompting people to consume foods they otherwise might avoid.
Nutritionists advise people against throwing back non-alcoholic beers simply because they lack substantial amounts of alcohol. Like regular beers, they amount to empty calories. For instance, The Athletic Brewing Company’s Wild Run IPA has 70 calories and 16 grams of carbs – about the same as a slice of wheat bread.
“Would you sit there and eat six slices of bread for no good reason?” said Liz Z. Emery, director of La Salle University’s dietetics program. “It’s fine to drink some of this, but if you’re watching calories – moderation.”
Nutritionists also stress that non-alcoholic beers have little, if any, nutritional value. Rather, they say the products’ health benefits are overstated. That includes assertions that the beers are a source of polyphenols, plant compounds believed to improve digestion and protect against heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
To start, the polyphenol content in beer remains a hypothesis, nutritionists say. It’s not clear that significant amounts of polyphenols are transferred from the hops and grain to the liquid beverage. Plus, anyone looking to add more polyphenols to their diet can find better sources elsewhere.
“There’s the higher content, obviously, in fruits and vegetables, spices, tea, dark chocolate,” Rubin said. “And there’s a higher percentage of polyphenols in wine than there is in beer. … We still wouldn’t recommend drinking any alcohol for the polyphenol or the antioxidant benefit. We’d much rather you consume the fruits and vegetables versus alcohol.”
The benefits of non-alcoholic beer as a post-workout drink also are overstated, nutritionists say.
Unlike regular beers, non-alcoholic brews aren’t dehydrating. They provide carbohydrates, which can provide some energy. But they generally lack significant amounts of electrolytes like magnesium, potassium and sodium.
Again, there simply are better post-workout options available, nutritionists say. A long-distance run might warrant a sports drink because it will help replenish carbs and provide electrolytes. A strength-training workout requires something with more protein.
Chocolate milk, for example, is a surprisingly beneficial post-workout drink, Prettelt said.
“It has the carbohydrates you need to help replenish,” Prettelt said. “It has the sugar you need to help replenish. And it has some fat in there too. It kind of has a little bit of everything that you need.”
Consumers should be aware that many non-alcoholic beers contain trace amounts of alcohol, but it’s not enough to make a person intoxicated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows non-alcoholic beers to contain up to 0.5% alcohol by volume. Beers labeled as alcohol free – like Budweiser Zero – must have a 0.0% ABV.
There is limited research examining the effect of non-alcoholic beers on unborn babies, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises women to avoid all alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
The bottom line, Emery said, is that non-alcoholic beer is a “great alternative” to regular beer because it lacks the harmful effects of alcohol. It’s just not a health drink.
“You wouldn’t really drink it to get nutritional benefits,” Emery said. “But if you want to have a beer on a hot day, it’s definitely a better choice.”